So, here I am, at the end of the third week of rehearsals of They Divided the Sky, reflecting on where we are and what it is we are doing.
I’m surrounded by chaos: bits of script pinned to a wall in more or less random arrangements; key research images; worker’s slogans from the former East Germany in large type, chemistry terms, snatches of Faust …
On my laptop, hours of audio; some of it part of a so-called “master” script, which includes large chunks of literal translation from the novel and a pre-rehearsal adaptation; some of it transcribed into individual documents. Improvised material from Nikki Shiels and Stephen Phillips is grouped into various themes. File names proliferate: “Eating; jealousy.doc”; “spontaneity 18.5.18.doc”.
The sheer quantity of words is highly unusual for me; my process is not usually this text-heavy. For my sanity’s sake, I have to hold fast to my philosophy: the important ideas will rise to the top, darlings will be killed and that is a good thing, when real-stage-time takes over, we will shed the bulk, and with it, the anxiety that we have missed moments of genius that have been created on the floor.
But there is a deeper reason for this word-chaos, something specific to this project is going on. It’s care. Care for Christa Wolf, care for her characters, and her voice and the voice of her characters. And care for my actors.
Meyerhold famously used the first read-through with his actors to tear holes in the play, to attack its weaknesses, highlighting overwritten passages, pointing out improbable plotting – particular when dealing with revered writers like Pushkin or Gogol.
In this way, he created space for the actors, and for himself to enter the work, to get to work. He understood that reverence is deadly when it comes to bringing a static artefact like a play to life.
I take this to heart – probably more radically than Meyerhold when it comes to an Ibsen or a Williams – but this project is something different.
Wolf’s writing is certainly not immune from criticism. As literature, it suffers from being melodramatic, sentimental. Wolf pushes the symbolic use of nature. She reaches a little with the Classical references. But her voice. I keep coming back to this, her voice and the voice of Rita, her protagonist, are so distinctive. And demand a kind of care. I feel protective.
Christa Wolf didn’t fare well in the culture wars that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Her fate mirrored that of East Germany as a whole. Capitalism simply won. Or at least, the brief moment for a more nuanced collision of the two systems was almost obliterated. It was left to a small collection of artists, historians and philosophers to fight a rear-guard action – an ongoing effort to write a message in the sand, “We were here”.
The idea that some of the values that were alive in the former East had merit, or might be considered in the reunification process, was as fragile as the architecture of Berlin itself. When large parts of Berlin were being redeveloped, the famous architect Rem Koolhaas resigned his public commission in protest at the white-washing of history, the erasure of the memory that is stored in public spaces and the lack of consultation. For him, the question was not being asked: What do the people want?
Wolf wrote until the last, she was engaged in a relentlessly honest examination of her own memory, of her past and of her society. She also got some things spectacularly wrong: She misread the mood of the crowds in a speech given days before the fall of the wall; she missed the wall coming down due to ill-health; she published old work and was criticised for her timing, for waiting until it was safe to publish, rather than being brave enough to provoke the regime.
Her last novel, the 2010 autobiography titled City of Angels, or The Overcoat of Dr Freud, is heartbreaking. She was in Los Angeles, a fish out of culture, while simultaneously her status in her natural environment back in Germany, was being fatally undermined by loud and public accusations of having collaborated with the Stasi.
So, my sense of protectiveness is also about human frailty and error, and empathy for an individual caught up in the historical moment.
Wolf was treated badly during the Cold War too, when it came to the translation and publication of her novels in the West. The works that came into English were disfigured. Censorship in both its overt form and a more insidious censorship.
They Divided the Sky is distinctive for a gentle formal innovation: the tense is mercurial. First person to third, narrator’s voice to protagonist, it’s a brilliantly handled technique, capable of great subtlety and ambiguity.
In translation, everything was changed to the impersonal third person, the authoritative voice, and the ambiguity and subtlety (not to mention readability) was thereby – and I use this word again because it appals me – erased.
At the heart of They Divided the Sky is a proposition that is not unfamiliar to Australians: work is good.
Work is dignity. Work is how a person defines themselves. Struggle, therefore is romanticised.
How often do we romanticise this idea in this country! How often do the wealthy among us refer to the hard work that the previous generation did to get them there? How often does the millionaire claim the idea of hard-work, even laughably in the face of inherited wealth or passive investment?
It runs deep this idea.
But there is another idea that Wolf is dealing with, one that has been erased from our sense of ethical living: What happens when there is no struggle, no friction, no labour?
Well, “the work” becomes solipsistic: Into the vacuum left by an absence of meaningful work comes work on the Self, physical improvement, psychotherapy. And then how is the value of that self-interest tested, shaped or transmuted if the “greater good” or the intrinsic value of productive labour has been removed as an ethical plumb-line?
One of Wolf’s answers is that love for another is redemptive, it is creative. Love creates. Personal ambition is a barren field. Love and Work are thereby elided.
But even here it is clear that Wolf is plotting an unfamiliar path. We may have no problem understanding that romantic love cannot survive in a vacuum, lovers need social context, their love needs purpose to survive. It is a harder proposition to suggest that work has intrinsic value, while love, detached from purpose, has none.
This is the great achievement of the novel They Divided the Sky. Yes, it tells the story of a romance as a proxy for the grand ideological battle of Socialism versus Capitalism, but just as powerfully, the reverse is presented; it uses those grand ideological battles as a metaphor for personal relationships and personal desire. It is in this sense, both Marxist and Freudian.
The German theatre director Armin Petras, who grew up in the former East Germany, conjured an image that sticks with me: In many countries, the proliferation of freeways has had a disastrous effect on native animals, they are unnaturally restricted in their movement, migration pathways are blocked, breeding territory becomes fatally restricted.
In Germany, they have spent a lot of money building little tunnels under the autobahn, to allow frogs and toads to cross safely. Here in Australia, we hang rope-bridges for endangered possums. There is something at once vital and pathetique about this very contemporary situation.
And here we are in Surry Hills, surrounded by our own heartaches and political inclinations.
Working in an ensemble-based process. Creating our own miniature Socialist paradise; everyone paid the same, everyone given a voice, knowing that our love for each other is based on our productivity.
Protecting Wolf’s words, and protecting our instincts against cliché and habit. Allowing ourselves to be romantic, even at the risk of sentimentality, allowing ourselves to be political, even at the risk of naiveté. Frailty, error, humanity. Passion, clarity, purpose.
Christa Wolf is here with us, in this mess, but, like this room at the end of week three of rehearsals, the metaphor hasn’t yet come into focus. It is, as they say, a hot mess.
Is this a rope-bridge that we are making? Does that make Wolf the possum? Or are we the amphibians waiting at the mouth of a little tunnel that she built, awaiting the safe arrival of Wolf, or at the least her heroine Rita – shy, brave Rita – from her small country town in East Germany in 1961 into a small theatre in Belvoir Street Sydney in June of 2018.
ps: They Divided the Sky is the title of Luise von Flotow’s excellent 2013 translation, which she generously gave us permission to use. Previously the standard translation of the title was Divided Heaven.